In Which I Feign Injury to Get Out of Wrestling Tristan Reed
Middle school is the only time in your life when everyone you see falls cleanly into one of two groups: those who have abs, and those who will have to work to get through life. It did not take me long to find my group. When your last school was basically a glorified daycare, and where your level of popularity was directly proportionate to the number of voices you could assign to the foods on your lunch tray, this is a mortifyingly bad discovery. But middle school doesn't care about what you've accomplished over your first eleven years. Like the Marines, it only cares about destroying everything about you, stripping you down to your most vulnerable person, and leaving you in a ditch you will spend ninth through eleventh grade climbing out of. The transition from elementary school to middle school is not kind to kids who give British accents to their mashed potatoes. And so it was not kind to me.
Over just the three months of summer 1998, I graduated from Valley Elementary School, a serene house of dog-shaped books and dedicated nap times, and entered Riverchase Middle School, where not only would I have to adjust to now having seven different teachers rather than one, but where every class period rotated throughout the week, except, for some ungodly reason, for fourth and fifth period, and depending on the day the class schedule could be 1-2-3-4-5-6-7, 6-7-1-4-5-2-3, or 2-3-6-4-5-7-1. It could also be 7-1-2-4-5-3-6 or 3-6-7-4-5-1-2. Fifteen years later, my only reflection on this human sudoko is that it was precisely designed so that no one could ever understand it, most likely for entertainment purposes, and so it became kind of this expected randomness among the macabre circus of our sixth-grade lives. Confused boys came to science in their gym clothes; frazzled girls carried a clarinet into civics, cried out What period is it today?! then spun around in tears. All of this was in effort, we were told, to Prepare Us For High School, which by then was so unimaginable that the very thought of it caused me to spin around until I fell over. I was eleven. Three months earlier I attended a school where it was borderline socially acceptable to throw up in the middle of the hallway. I was not going to have a good time.
Academically, the years of middle school are pretty much a waste. The lessons learned in social order, however, are branded onto you with a red-hot iron. They begin immediately, most commonly on that sad but necessary first morning of Bus Room, when you walk in and reunite with all the friends you last saw at Valley and realize that while you were playing Diddy Kong Racing all summer long, everyone you knew from elementary school was ripping their abdominal sections to shreds with the determination of a wrongfully accused federal prisoner. I had no idea it was something I was supposed to be working at. No one told me, "Hey, middle school's coming, maybe stop making nightly ice cream sundaes and do a sit-up." When you're eleven, random things you don't understand happen to your body pretty much every week. As far as I knew, abs were something that just happened to you, so they weren't something I actively worked at.
Each week someone around me seemed to get tapped into the club. Wow, you would think to yourself while squeezing into a gym shirt, looks like Trey got in. I wonder when I'll get mine? You never do, of course, which eventually leads to acceptance of life's first somber law of division, which says that at age eleven you will go one of two ways: You will either excel athletically and begin to separate yourself in life's social pond, or you will entrench yourself as third-chair trumpet, cling to your role on the church drama team, and find great humor in hampsterdance.com. Embracing whatever side you land on is the only way to cope.
Embracing reality was, obviously, much easier to do on Team Abs. On the last day of sixth grade we had a talent show, and one of the most popular kids in the school spray-painted his hair silver and danced the worm on the floor of the gymnasium to "The Thong Song" by Sisqo, in front of the entire grade. When he surveyed his life, he found that this was his greatest talent. As he gyrated and flailed on the ground in a tank top and sweat pants, as Sisqo sang She had thighs like what what what over his writhing, the crowd of his peers roared. He had abs.
So the truth in those days came hard and fast, and there was no place to escape it. There was no place to escape any of the horrible things about middle school, really, which is why any story of a chubby pale-skinned boy who is terrible at wrestling begins there, in a peaceful suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, where I was terrible at everything.
In sixth grade I was coming off, frankly, a stellar elementary school career capped by basically the highest honor a ten-year-old in our city could get: a landslide election of Pelham's Junior Mayor, thanks to a raucous campaign speech during which, in front of the entire fifth grade, I closed with a Top Ten list of reasons my fellow students should vote for me. (No. 1: I'll do your math.) I won every vote. The idea was to simply roll that success over to my new school, surrounded by a class that already knew of my academic accomplishments, political acumen, and ability to compile a topical Top Ten list, and launch a successful three-year junior high campaign that would propel me into high school as a well-liked, accomplished student.
That plan died pretty fast. On the first day I walked into the Riverchase cafeteria, my success as Junior Mayor became frighteningly irrelevant. It no longer mattered what I had accomplished in office, that I had decided to spend my one and only day in charge of the city desperately pleading with our real mayor to attract a regional fast food hamburger chain to town, nor did it matter that somehow that plan actually worked, and within a year everyone who ate at Milo's had my political will and love for hamburgers to thank. (I was later featured in one of their local commercials. I really liked their food.) All that mattered was that on that first morning of sixth grade I walked into the cafeteria and someone else was wearing the same gray Old Navy T-shirt as me, and for the first time, I noticed. He did not have abs. It was downhill from there.
That isn't to say that those on Team Trumpet aren't afforded their own chances to shine, and in this sense it really isn't fair to say that I was horrible at everything, since the Valleydale Baptist Church middle school drama team certainly falls under "everything," and I was very successful there. While I waited on my abs I cranked out a drama career unparalleled in the millennium-era Shelby County church drama scene. As the only boy on a team of twenty I was the default Jesus in every skit we performed for three straight years, and as a rosy-faced, heavily-cologned, four-foot-eleven lump of a Jesus in oversized Tommy Hilfiger shirts and rope belts, I ensured that our drama team, if not the most diverse, was at least the most open to a liberal portrayal of Christ. I played Jesus in everything—touching parables, straightforward Bible stories, and, most disturbingly, choreographed silent musicals in which I always ended up dying on an invisible cross. It was a comfortable shelter of a career, and I was happy there. Perhaps to ensure that a twelve-year-old didn't develop a God Complex, I was soon given roles as Brer Rabbit and a Jamaican Noah, during which I popped out of a box, yelled out "WHAT'S HAPPENIN' MON!" and sang a song about the Great Flood with a Caribbean accent. It was a pretty white church.
But for a kid whose chief accomplishment by age twelve is that he has held no fewer than eighteen various dramatic portrayals of Christ, middle school is a dangerous proposition. For many students middle school represents, of course, the process of moving on from childhood into adolescence, and kids who go through it in public school do it in one of two ways: they fall into it face first, leaving childhood far behind, and in two years their hair is the color of motor oil and all their shirts have mean clowns on them, or they ease in slowly, one step at a time, torn between wanting to be a kid and wanting to be something much older they don't understand.
I was not someone torn between childhood and adolescence as much as I was someone clenched by childhood being dragged into adolescence. I loved drama and music and animals and had a dog named Sandy. I excelled at things like piano theory and sports trivia and wore Far Side T-shirts that genuinely made me laugh when I looked down at them during the day. I put on fake radio shows in my bedroom. I liked to draw a cartoon lamb I had named Winky. Facing middle school, I felt like George Washington watching the British capture New York. I could only regard it, helpless, as it overwhelmed every part of me, little by little, and my only thought for three solid years was retreat.
To my credit, the classification system our school used to organize the sixth grade was preconditioned to destroy me. To organize the students, each grade at Riverchase was divided into teams of teachers that focused on a small subset of the grade. Eighth graders were divided into the Green Team and the Blue Team, and seventh grade was divided into the Endeavour Team and the Discovery Team. Simple enough. Something one might even look forward to. My sixth grade class, however, was the largest Riverchase had ever seen, so we would require three teams. On the first day of school we were herded into three groups where we would spend the next nine months: the Lions' Den, the Wolf Pack, and because I was going to learn early that sometimes people are just plucked out to serve as life's sad exhibits, the Pig Pod. I did not have to be told which line to get in.
Maybe the act of placing a solid one-third of new sixth graders into a group called the "pigs" was a naive oversight. Maybe our teachers genuinely thought, Hey, you know what animal has the most in common with wolves and lions? Pigs. I tend to remember it as blatant sadism. Either way, as a red-faced eleven-year-old, all I knew was that on the first day of sixth grade I was given a large blue T-shirt with a giant pink pig face on the front as students around me began to associate themselves with wolves and lions. In no universe is this a good way to begin a middle school career, nor is it a solid foundation on which to develop any sort of normal adolescent personality, but the reality of my middle school experience is that I self-identified with a pig for an entire year. More alarmingly, a generation of girls with whom I would have to go through the next seven years of public school did, too.
Mornings at Riverchase were like repetitive scenes of a bad zombie movie where the undead try to adjust to suburban life. Everything was done in such a droning banality that had the world actually ended and the sixth grade been replaced by an army of ficus trees, I can't think of three people who would have noticed for the better part of a semester. Of course, as a sixth grade boy, though your general outward disposition is that of a confident gel-haired troubadour strutting through life, on the inside you are equal parts self-conscious drifter, stand-up comedian, Abercrombie & Fitch mannequin, and hypersensitive Yorkshire Terrier. Soon the daily repetition of my morning routine provided a safe place to cozy up before my world came apart in first period. I clung to things like the Pledge of Allegiance and Mr. Hulberg's morning announcements like a familiar restaurant I never wanted to leave, partially because, as a boy adjusting to such radical changes in his life, they were a safe place where I knew what to expect, but mostly because when they ended that meant at some point I would have to go to P.E.
There are many differences, of course, between elementary school and middle school, but no gulf is as wide as Physical Education. Elementary school P.E. follows a regular rotation of things like jump roping, juggling, kickball, rolling in grass, and running around an empty field. It's basically a place for kids to wear themselves out and overheat just to the point that they're too drained to be bratty in the afternoon. Middle school P.E. is something much different, something almost military, that involves squad lines and locker rooms and taking your shirt off in front of people in the Wolf Pack. The P.E. teachers at Riverchase were infamous. The entire group was so ill-prepared to teach physical education that it should have warranted school board involvement. Two of the coaches were obese and rarely left their chairs, calling out instructions over a microphone. A third, Coach Brewer, was rumored to be the apocryphal namesake behind Crazy Bill's fireworks, a local Birmingham fireworks chain that popped up every summer and sold cheap Chinese fireworks out of trailers. By the time you hit January of your fifth grade year you started hearing stories about them—things like "I heard they ordered McDonald's one day and made everyone just sit in the gym so they could eat it" (unverified), and "I heard they had pizza delivered straight to the gym and ate it while they made the kids run around" (also unverified, though entirely believable). Their ineptitude was our biggest urban legend.
The goal of the physical education system in America's public schools has always been, not unlike the goal of the African lion, to single out the weakest of the population, isolate them in unfamiliar surroundings, and end their life. P.E. was humiliating in ways I didn't even know existed. Like, for instance, the idea that we all needed to wear matching cotton uniforms—a snug crew-neck T-shirt blazoned with a cartoon ram on the front and paired with thin blue cotton shorts—labeled twice with our name in Sharpie so there was no doubt as to who the boy bringing up the rear of the shuttle run was. I suppose it wouldn't have been that bad under different circumstances, but I wasn't exactly gifted in middle school with any of the conventional physical aptitudes a teenage boy desires. I didn't wear the uniform as much as I "fit in" to it, as mothers in Alabama like to say.
The P.E. experience began the same way every day: Every boy in the grade would crowd into the non-ventilated locker room, change into his ram and blue shorts, and then divide into whatever activity was so chosen for us that day. Afterward we would change back and sit on the gym bleachers until the bell rang. There were no showers, and because of the rotating schedule this would often happen in one of the first three periods of the morning, leaving us to spend the rest of the day settling into our own grease, as if working ourselves into a lather we could not wash off was part of our regular morning routine. Because you don't develop self-awareness until after college, we had no idea how we smelled or looked. Our teachers undoubtedly did, which honestly explains a lot about their general hostility toward us. In retrospect, perhaps it explains the entire rotating schedule system altogether. It was not a system of sadistic entertainment, but mercy, sparing the teachers who would have otherwise been doomed to follow immediately after P.E. every day for nine months.
There was little mercy to be found in the gym, however. There were some activities I enjoyed, no doubt designed around our gym teachers' desire to spend as much time as possible sitting in chairs. One unit was simply called "Quiet Games," where we sat in a trailer and played chess or Battleship for an hour. Learning that P.E. for the week was going to be Quiet Games was the closest an Alabama resident can come to winning the lottery. Archery wasn't so bad—I had great vision and was really good at visualizing things and people on the target—but in general the hour of P.E. was a great opportunity to explore the various ways I could be bad at something. Each activity seemed drawn out of a hat of the most humiliating physical exhibitions a chubby 12-year-old boy could endure: gymnastics, dodgeball, the mile run, square dancing.
There was one activity, however, that towered over every other possible physical exhibition I was forced to endure. There was only one week each semester that caused me to practically seek out ways to achieve food poisoning or rationalize thoughts like, If I ran away, honestly I think my parents would understand. Plus we can email. Each of these days began the same way, too. I walked into the gym, saw the wrestling mat spread across the floor, and immediately fell into an emotional ball of dread and regret.
The most horrible thing about the wrestling unit was how much everyone else looked forward to it. The sight of that cold blue mat on our lacquered gym floor was known to elicit whooping and fist-pumps from legions of my colleagues in the Wolf Pack and Lions' Den. The whole event had a real gladiator-esque nightmare feel to it. Even the gym was set up like the Coliseum. After dressing into uniform, each boy formed a circle around the mat and sat in observance as, one by one, we were called to weigh in, sorted into weight classifications, and then paired together in complete disregard for weight classification, at the whim of a barbarous gym coach with the word "crazy" in his name.
I mostly sat with my head in my hands. There are moments you just know things are not going to end well. In these moments I felt very far from the Junior Mayor's seat, or the hot lights of the Valleydale Baptist drama room. My athletic history at twelve years old was appropriately underwhelming. There were a few years of YMCA basketball, where I modeled my game after the long history of successful NBA players who are the shortest on the floor and immediately shoot the ball every time they touch it regardless of the situation, and one year on the Pelham 105-pound "Gold" football team. I had done some good things, but the reality was that in twelve years I had never played on a team named after anything other than a color. My closet looked like a box of crayons. Cotton jerseys from my days on the Blue Team, the Orange Team, and the Green Team built a timeline of my milquetoast career. There was one year we decided as a group that the name "Black Team" would not do, and we chose a mascot for ourselves, modeled after our town's high school mascot, the Pelham Panther. My dad was an assistant coach on that team, and at the end of the season we all received a plaque honoring our time spent with the Pelham Black Panthers. My father proudly displayed this plaque in his office for many years, leading to an unimaginable number of uncomfortable client meetings. The next year we were encouraged to just embrace being the Yellow Team.
My brief career as a youth football player was kind of like when a dog wants to do something he knows is a bad idea, and he does it anyway, and he tries to quit every day but his parents don't let him, and eventually he starts filming segments of a local Kids News broadcast at the TV station so he doesn't have to go to practice, and then the season ends and he can't even go to the party at Golden Corral because by then he's so committed to Kids News that he has to film on Thursday nights and the team won't arrange the party around his schedule. I have nothing to say about my experience playing youth football except that I didn't think it was so possible to hate something you loved so much, and I still remember with sharp clarity the moment I knew my love for football was best expressed through watching it and not participating. It was a late-season scrimmage, and for some reason I was tackled in the open field even though in no scenario would I have ever been allowed to carry the ball, and as I lay on the field in full pads and a helmet that made me look like a Junior Astronaut, I began to feel something crawling all throughout my pads and skin. The teammate who tackled me immediately jumped off me, and when I stood up the coaches quickly pulled me to the side and started hitting at me and unbuckling my pads. It was then that the incessant crawling turned to biting, and the rest of the team huddled around the spot where I had been tackled, which by then was not an ant bed as much as it was a flattened dirt patch trying desperately to rebuild itself, and my entire body was crawlingly alive with ants.
It was moments like these that I considered as I surveyed the wrestling mat before me in the Riverchase gym. Sometimes crazy things happen, I thought to myself, like when you get tackled in an ant bed, and you get to leave early and eat pizza and don't have to do this crap. But there were no ant beds in the gym. The starkness of the situation had eliminated any possibility for escape. The hour usually went like this: Everyone sat around the mat in a muddled buzz of anticipation and bravado, and I looked down at the floor, not altogether different than when a turtle retreats into its shell to avoid a predator. The turtle thinks that if he goes into the shell and thinks hard enough that he's made himself disappear, the rest of the world will think so too, and the predator won't know to call his name to wrestle in front of all the other turtles. But of course everyone else can still see the shell, and in this way it so happened that every other day or so the die had to be cast, and as Coach Brewer read off the three groups of pairings that would put on an awkward exhibition of adolescent grappling in front of the entire grade, I would hear my name included with the lot.
I always sat next to my friend Jordan in the gym, and we made something of a running commentary as our friends and classmates got called out to wrestle. He's got no chance, one of us would say, or This actually ought to be interesting to watch, or Oh god if I have to wrestle that monster I swear I'm going to pretend I'm sick.
There was really only one person in the grade we said that last thing about. Tristan Reed wasn't a middle schooler as much as he was a person stuck in a Groundhog Day-esque reality in which every day was Halloween and he had gone as Ivan Drago. He was a hardened Alabama boy, a Wolf-Packer, wrought with all the elements the state can throw at a person and with blond hair buzzed to the scalp. He had somehow had abs since third grade. In no universe run by a loving Creator would I ever have to face him in a combat situation. But if there is ever an environment to make a person question the existence of a loving Creator, it is a hot middle school gym under the dictation of a man most widely accepted to be a fireworks mogul known as Crazy Bill.
The selection of wrestlers was the worst backward lottery ever. Coach Brewer would sit in a plastic chair at the base of the gym stage and simply read last names into a microphone, amped loud enough so that the girls doing aerobics on the other side of the gym's dividing curtain could certainly draw their own conclusions about each match. There was never any sense of fairness, equity, or, as I was about to experience, mercy. It was only the two unlucky lumps he wanted to see square off for everyone's enjoyment. And when he surveyed his list, no doubt, and saw the names and weights listed beside each other, there were two that seemed almost destined to be called together at one point or another.
"Reed," he growled out one morning. The class stiffened; Tristan's name turned things serious.
Jordan and I were the only two who loosened up, thankful for once that our ineptness was on our side, protecting us from a matchup school officials and a loving God would never allow. Several students let out a muted Ooh... as they surveyed the crowd. A general sense of foreboding fell over everyone.
Tristan rose and walked himself into position. Each match was divided into three rounds, the first of which involved the two wrestlers simply facing each other before, I believe the rules state, beating the crap out of each other as legally as they can so figure. On the other side of the dividing curtain, no doubt, several girls piqued at the sound of the name. Based on his weight class, some serious colliding was about to go down. But, then again, not all weight is muscle.
"Latta," was all I heard, then my vision went black and the gym turned on its side and my childhood ended. Jordan fell out with laughter. I met Tristan's eyes and we both froze. Muffled laughter filled the gym, not all, I can guarantee, from our side of the curtain. My eyes darted to Coach Brewer, and as I beheld his expression I learned for the first time that it's actually possible to talk with a smirk to your voice. He moved on to the next set of names and I was left to quickly formulate a plan. I did not know what I was going to have to do, but on no planet was I about to give him the satisfaction of enduring what he had proposed.
My parents would not let me quit football, they told me, because sticking with it would build character. So does prison, I always thought, and as much as I loved my parents, no effort at projecting character or integrity upon me was going to motivate me to "be the bigger man" or "set an example" or "do the right thing" in this situation. I wanted to live to see seventh grade. Besides, I knew what sticking with football had gotten me. Ants. All in my pads and down my pants and I was itchy for weeks. Middle school didn't teach me much, but it did teach me one lesson I carried with me well into adulthood: Sometimes quitting is just the best option you have.
As I surveyed the possibilities, I knew I could not simply pretend that I didn't hear him. I thought maybe I could filibuster—if I just sat there long enough in defiance, it would be awkward, but eventually the bell would ring—and I also briefly considered whether it was possible to psychologically convince everyone else another name had been called by patting Jordan on the back and saying "Alright, go get em! Jordan vs. Tristan, here we go! Let's cheer Jordan on, you guys!" There was, of course, the option of turning my back and running out of the gym and the school never to return, but I had Scholar's Bowl practice that afternoon.
Quickly I realized the only real option if I was going to get out of this thing was to pretend I had some private injury that no one could question. I didn't, of course, but I did have three years of drama experience and several student privacy laws on my side. I began walking across the mat in my socks, directly for the man sitting in the plastic chair. I had less than ten steps to formulate my story.
It came to me fast. The night before I had been at Odyssey of the Mind practice. Odyssey of the Mind is kind of like sports for kids who would play sports if they wouldn't inevitably get tackled in ant beds. It involved creative problem solving and writing skits and building sets—basically everything I could ever live for—and of course had an awesomely vague name that those types of kids loved telling people they participated in. (Kids like me didn't play football; we were on Scholar's Bowl and Odyssey of the Mind—"OM" if we were feeling especially excellent.) Of course, I also loved Odyssey of the Mind because we practiced once a week and always ordered pizza.
Coach Brewer was looking at his clipboard as I approached.
"I can't wrestle," I spat out. "I hurt my shoulder." I was back on the invisible cross, enacting silent parables, popping out of my Jamaican Noah box.
He looked at me with a mixture of anger and pity. We both clearly knew I was lying, but I think he realized the real self-loathing it took to walk in front of every boy in my grade to do it. For the first time, maybe he was even a little proud of me. Either way, there was something about the act that briefly drew me into his heart. Over my shoulder he could see Tristan, kneeling, awaiting his opponent. My brown hair was parted perfectly over my left eye and my voice broke as I explained my injury: the night before, I fell and landed awkwardly on my right arm, and I hadn't been able to write or hold my trumpet all day.
What had really happened was the night before, at OM practice, I had been lying on my living room floor coloring a piece of poster board in my socks when the doorbell rang. Because we had ordered pizza thirty minutes earlier, I knew what was up, and I reacted the way our dog usually did when the doorbell rang, springing to my feet and sprinting toward it. I yelled out, "PIZZA'S HERE!" as I leapt up, and in my excitement I slipped on the poster board and fell back onto the carpet. It didn't even hurt. I was eating pizza within minutes. But, as in any survival situation, I knew I had to use whatever tools I had. My excuse was literally built around a story in which I tried to run to pizza, and failed. It would have to do.
Coach Brewer twirled a toothpick in his teeth as he looked me over. I could tell there was a lot in his head he wanted to say—years, perhaps, of things he wanted to say to lumps like me in his gym class—but eventually he settled on "Go back to your seat." I wanted to hug something. The group watched as I limped back to my spot beside Jordan.
"What did you say?" he asked as a whistle blew.
"I hurt my shoulder last night. I can't go."
"Wait, why were you limping?"
I didn't care if he didn't believe me. I didn't care if Coach Brewer didn't believe me. Sometimes there are things that have to be done. I had lived. I hissed at Jordan to shut up. In front of us, a body slammed to the mat at Tristan's feet with a violent THWAP that resonated off the gym walls.
I met the boy's eyes. It was nothing personal against him. The violent reality of nature is such that sometimes a creature has to eat one of its kind in order to survive. He and I had both learned a hard lesson that day. I could offer him nothing but pity. Jordan and I looked on as Tristan picked him up to re-slam him to the mat. He emitted a soft moan only we could hear.
 I have no idea if kids who are homeschooled go through this, mainly because every day from age eleven to fourteen I fantasized about being homeschooled, because I assumed that homeschooled kids got up at 10, did classwork in their pajamas, grabbed lunch with their parents, and played out the rest of the afternoon on the basketball court, then I realized later that that is exactly what they did.
 It sounds horrible, and even though I now associate the sport of football with becoming something of an ant buffet, the night did end with my leaving practice early and going to get pizza with my family, so all in all I can't say the whole ordeal wasn't at least partially a success, especially considering the alternative was staying at football practice thirty more minutes.
 Jordan and I were kindred souls, and either of us would have gladly rolled around in a good day's ant bed to avoid being there. Of course, when one of us got called, the other broke into a fit of smothered laughter, and we would hate each other until the whole thing was over.